Making the Most of Your Garden During Isolation: How to Guarantee You Get Macro Shots

Making the Most of Your Garden During Isolation: How to Guarantee You Get Macro Shots

Isolation is sending many of us into a form of madness, myself included. We've had lots of content created for photographers while you're in lockdown and indoors, but this is one for the garden.

When it comes to macro photography of wildlife, I consider myself desperately unlucky. I live in England. where our insect selection is dull, to say the least, save for dragonflies and the occasional hornet, perhaps. That doesn't mean, however, that you can't practice the craft and still capture some great shots. The truth is, you can do this anywhere, including your garden.

I've done macro photography for over a decade, and I've picked up a number of nuggets of knowledge, which means I will always come back with a shot every time I go out with my camera. The knee-jerk reaction for many people during lockdown will be that their garden isn't good enough for taking pictures of insects. While that may be true, if you have any plants at all, it's good enough, though buying more plants will obviously help! If you live in a property that doesn't have a garden, use your daily walk (if you're permitted to do so). I used to have a decent-sized garden with many different plants and a bee house I installed, and finding insects was a breeze. Unfortunately, I'm stuck in isolation at a house with a tiny garden and very few plants. Nevertheless, I can guarantee I'll come back with shots every time, and so I thought for those interested in macro photography, I will give you some tips on how you can too.

Make sure to share in the comment section your favorite macro images from your garden or near your home.

Learn the Lay of the Land

Your first task takes a little time: you need to get a proper and complete read of your garden (or the space in which you are going to shoot, I'll use "garden" for simplicity). You need to know where the sun is going to land during different points of the day, where the best plants are and what insects are drawn to them, and where the dead zones are. Dead zones are parts of your garden that will almost never receive any wildlife, despite possibly having plants there. They're typically where the sun never hits. This is why one of the key areas you need to know is where the sun hits during different points of the day. Most insects will be in sunny areas, so you ought to frequent them too.

Insect Psychology 101

I'm no entomologist, so take all I say with a pinch of salt, but my experience has served me well. All species of insects behave in their own ways and react differently to human presence; it is worth watching the insects in your garden for patterns. As I mentioned, living in the U.K. means I don't have very exciting subjects, but I can use what I have as an example. For instance, when I shoot hoverflies, I know they are patient and like to stay still — both in the air and on plants — as much as possible. I have a fair amount of flexibility with how I can move around them, and as long as I don't cast a shadow over where they are, I can shoot them for a good while.

Honeybees, however, are far more skittish. They work quickly, are generally too cumbersome to hover, and don't hang around. Shooting them requires slow, careful movement, and often predictions of where they will go next. If bees fly towards you and start strafing left and right in the air, they're probably trying to get you to back off.

Every family of insects behaves in ways that can be learned and then used to photograph them better, so take in what the inhabitants of your garden often do.

Patience

This is obvious for all forms of wildlife photography, but you need patience. I won't patronize you with a long section here; I'll just say this: when you know which area is active with insects and which plants attract the most, hang around there, as still as possible, for a while. If you're constantly roaming around, rustling plants, going in and out of the house while you wait for action, you're far less likely to get anything.

You're Not Looking Hard Enough

This little guy was a few millimeters in size and hanging underneath a leaf. I missed him the first time round and then continued to miss him for several minutes while looking directly at the very plant he lived in.

In every article and guide I've written on macro photography for various websites, I include this tip. Early on in my macro photography sessions, I realized that it's all too easy to say, "there's nothing to shoot today." But it is, for all intents and purposes, never true. Although it ties in with patience, you also need to train your eyes to spot subjects. Insects are invariably well camouflaged, and the quicker you scan a plant and move on, the less likely you are to spot something. I can't tell you how many times I've done my initial rounds and concluded nothing is out, forced myself to pick an area and slowly examine it, and then come away with shots of something I missed.

You Don't Need to Be 2:1

Alright, this is Costa Rica, not England, but while I could have gone right up and captured this little frog's eye from point blank, I'd rather step back and get a more interesting frame.

This is a common mistake with macro photographers: they try to be as close as their equipment allows. Yes, I understand the urge, as many interesting shots use a magnification of 1:1 or better. But just because it's there doesn't mean you ought to always use it. It's much the same as having an f/1.4 lens; just because you can go that wide doesn't mean it's the best choice for every shot. Experiment with shooting from a little farther back, as it has some great perks:

  • More of the insect will be in focus front to back
  • You're less likely to disturb the subject
  • You can always crop in later
  • You need less light
  • You can bring in some of the scenery

By going in as close as possible, the chance you're going to come away from your macro photography session with nothing increases exponentially. If I do want to go close up and flex the lens's capabilities, I will often start farther away and grab shots as I move in closer and closer.

Bonus Tip: You Don't Need a Macro Lens

This image was taken with just a Canon 550D, the 18-55mm kit lens it came with, and a cheap eBay macro filter.

When I first wanted to try macro photography, I couldn't really afford to buy a dedicated lens. Desperate to give it a go anyway, I bought a cheap macro filter off of eBay and put it on a simple kit lens. Many lenses today have such great minimum focus distances that you can bypass a macro filter altogether. Don't presume that this kind of photography requires specialized kit. While some shots will be limited to a macro lens, a great deal aren't!

Over to You

Now I want to see some of your best macro images taken in your garden or near your house. Share them in the comment section below.

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12 Comments

Skyler Ewing's picture

I love macro photography. Insects are so much fun to watch and photograph. Here is a quick tip: spray a little sugar water on whatever plant , flower or leaf you want your insect to come to, and a few minutes later you will meet a new friend. Sometimes you can set ahead a background ( natural or not) behind the flower you sprayed and it could be like a mini outdoor studio:)

Robert K Baggs's picture

Hoverflies are one of my favourites to shoot. So placid! I've used sugar water once or twice before, usually for wasps at the end of summer. Definitely a great tip though.

Troy Straub's picture

Great article! Macro is my favorite thing to shoot. Here's a tiny jumping spider that was in my window sill a week or two ago. The sill was ugly and boring so I placed an old penny up there to give some interest and scale.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Ha, that's perfect. Jumping spiders are a macro photographer's best friend. Cutest subject by far.

Troy Straub's picture

Thanks!
My wife was never really scared of spiders, but didn't care for them either. After she saw a my first jumping spider pic she fell in love with it. Now when she sees one she will call me over and say there's a cute little jumping spider over here get the camera.

Atul Saluja's picture

Could not agree with you more, Robert. Macro is a fascinating genre of photography. It certainly takes patience, perseverance and practice to get better. So not too different from many things in life :). But one good picture can make up for all the effort. Certainly the compositional elements are more pronounced when one actually steps back a bit to take in the whole scene. Really up close at 1:1 or better is certainly far more challenging since sharp focus and detail are so much more critical. I share a picture of a paper wasp who was making all sorts of comic faces. Was quite an engaging photo session! Cheers..

Robert K Baggs's picture

Wow, I've never seen a paper wasp, they look otherworldly!

I'm on a personal project to do a picture a day, I started Jan 2019 and haven't missed a day yet, but since lock down I've had to look a bit closer to home for inspiration. I have found though that looking on a macro level gives me a lot more chances of a great picture. The garden has become like a jungle, and I still get plenty of visitors too. Like this Ladybird (Ladybug) on a hunt for aphids I didn't even see until after I downloaded the picture.

Robert K Baggs's picture

A photo a day project is far more difficult than it sounds, isn't it? I would be leaning on macro photography most days I think!

jim hughes's picture

I used a 100mm macro lens for this, hand-held at 1/1000. Push the ISO and shutter speed way up, no one is going to care about noise in the shadows. Get the lens at a right angle to the subject because the DOF is so shallow. I use focus peaking and manual focus. My big insight was that you need to get the insect's eye in focus to make the shot interesting. Crop down for a nice composition - you won't be selling a 4 foot print.

Macro isn't exclusively about insects. Insect do make interesting subject, but so do flowers, details of larger objects and anything else that takes your fancy

Dan Bozza's picture

Both were taken with the Nikon D750 and the Tokina AT X Pro D Macro 100mm